National Partnership for Women & Families

History of the FMLA

A story of passion, patience and persistence: The nine-year fight to make the FMLA the law of the land.

The National Partnership is passionate about making America more fair and family friendly. That is a goal that drives much of our work today, just as it has for more than four decades.

In 1984, when we were known as the Women's Legal Defense Fund, we wrote the first draft of the legislation that would later become the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

The end of the story is well known — the FMLA passed with bipartisan support in January 1993 and was signed by President Clinton as the first accomplishment of his new administration. It was a historic day for women and families, and one of our proudest moments as an organization.

What is not as widely known is the journey we took during those nine years. The road to passage was long and difficult. Our mettle, and that of our allies, was tested time and time again. But we never let up, and we prevailed.

The FMLA was introduced in Congress every year from 1984 to 1993 and was blocked repeatedly by entrenched, well-funded opponents. For years we built and nurtured a strong, broad-based coalition and led fierce and tireless advocacy. Congress passed the legislation in 1991 and 1992 — but it was vetoed both times by President George H.W. Bush.

However, under the leadership of former President Judith L. Lichtman, today a senior advisor to the National Partnership, former Legal Director Counsel Donna Lenhoff, and current President Debra L. Ness, we remained undeterred. And we got the job done — with help from a broad-based coalition, thousands of activists, and newly-elected President Clinton, who wholeheartedly supported our vision.

The FMLA is a case study of elected officials on both sides of the aisle — and advocacy groups representing diverse interests — joining together to support common sense public policy for the good of our nation. Read a more detailed history here.

The FMLA also offers compelling evidence that progress is possible, even in the face of adversity, and that some victories are well worth the struggle. In the 20 years since its enactment, the FMLA has been used more than 100 million times and has helped mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters... all across the country.

However, not everyone is eligible for the FMLA and many people cannot afford to take the unpaid leave it provides.

That's why we need your help today. The National Partnership’s President, Debra L. Ness, is leading a national effort to expand the FMLA to cover more workers who need leave for more reasons, and to enact a national paid leave program.

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